National Voices

Tuesday, Nov 20 2012 11:00 PM

MICHAEL WOLFF: Election drastically alters media landscape

By The Bakersfield Californian

We know the right wing is in bad shape after its election defeat, but what about right-wing media?

The presidential election was a victory for a younger, ethnic, urban, no-family nation and, at least within the margin of victory, a repudiation of a white, older, family-value, rural America that watches right-wing media.

This America has not only watched right-wing media but has made it pretty much the only media business that has experienced sustained, double-digit growth, even through the recession. So what now?

Fox had a painful election night with its on-air bickering about when to call who had carried the state of Ohio. Rush Limbaugh, with his anti-women rhetoric, is getting personal blame for the Republican loss. Even The Wall Street Journal ought to be chastened that its columnist, Republican kingpin and money raiser Karl Rove, systematically failed in his election analysis and predictions.

But good politics and good media are not necessarily the same thing.

Right-wing media is an attractive business for a variety of reasons that have nothing or little to do with who actually wins or loses. There's less competition to reach the conservative sweet spot, an older, more rural, less-rich audience. It's an old-fashioned tether-to-the-TV (or even to radio) audience, with fewer media choices. What's more, this audience, often feeling excluded by urban and youthful media, is more loyal to its chosen brands.

Us-against-them creates a classic member-of-the-club media franchise. Plus, the right-wing audience, validating itself with organizational memberships and identity-supporting purchases, such as right-wing books, is easy to target. This audience tilts toward men, who are harder to reach, making them, in media terms, more valuable. This is why Fox News and conservative talk radio thrive. The fact that a larger part of the country has now been shown to be unsympathetic to the right-wing media demo ought to be of little concern to right-wing media owners. The liberal audience may be growing by a crucial increment, but the right-wing audience is not shrinking in any meaningful way.

Yet, there is a symbiosis between politics and media -- between politics and commerce. Right-wing media encourages and benefits from the fierce dogmatism and confrontational style and hunger for media attention among the conservative insurgents. Right-wing media would be vastly less interesting if it had to rely mainly on the cautious views of fiscal conservatives. Instead, it has been able to arouse enough excitement and provoke enough conflict to create a highly telegenic and media-ized conversation. Right-wing extroverts and proselytizers want to perform for it. This programming, while it has polarized the electorate, has galvanized devotees.

Again, in media terms, this is good, because it ever-more-tightly defines the audience -- programmers know what they like and how to give it to them. But in political terms, it's now turning out badly because it has also equally defined the countervailing audience. The self-dramatizing pundits and exaggerated candidates who have become stars of right-wing media are vivid enough and scary enough to offend the middle and bring anti-conservatives to the polls. Still, right-wing media isn't in the business of electing right-wing candidates. Its business is getting a robust audience. Conflict and polarization are good for ratings.

In that pursuit, it's unlikely that Fox News is suddenly going to seek out the voices of Hispanics and single black women, or vastly change its position on immigration, gay marriage or drug policy. Hence, the Republican Party may continue on its road to doom, while right-wing media prospers with programming that is more and more upsetting to the new, more liberal middle.

But survival is a good incentive, and the Republican Party may begin to understand that to compete in this new demographic contest, it has to control and shape its own message -- one that's inclusive, broader, less defined, more full of good feeling -- encouraging and tutoring its candidates in the art of calculated blandness. This will be distinctly bad for right-wing media.

What's more, if the national consensus is truly tilting liberal, right-wing media -- no matter if its audience stays loyal -- could feel the sting and ostracism in more direct ways. As soon as advertisers begin to sense a shift in respectability, or, worse, acceptability, they shiver. Even holding its audience, the taint of extremism, homophobia or racism, or even just old-fogie-ism, is going to start to scare major advertisers away.

Pressure comes from the top, too. Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox parent News Corp., has, under prodding from his wife and children, become increasingly uncomfortable with Fox News. Because of Fox's mighty profits, he could withstand that discomfort. But at some point, especially if advertisers grow more weary, media executives who oversee conservative outlets are going to see the center as a more comfortable place to be.

The center, of course, for a media organization, is not an enviable place. That's the CNN dilemma. The closer you move toward the center, the less potent and targeted your programming. This is, then, an opening for the left wing. In conservative, religious-centered, pro-family America, right-wing agitation has somehow been seen as acceptable, even a form of status quo, while left-wing positions have been controversial and outre. It has been perfectly respectable to publicly argue that women should not have abortions, but pretty much unacceptable to openly argue the virtues of having one. But the reverse is suddenly a possibility. Left-wing media, a category that has long suffered from earnestness and lack of joie de vivre, gets to blow its horn and pump up its self-dramatizing and doctrinaire core. Right-wing media, on the other hand, desperately trying to hold onto its advertisers and seek the approval of the children of its owners and executives, is forced to a lackluster center.

In such a fashion, and in such a media culture, the Republican Party could well return to being an even-tempered, moderate and majority party. Right-wing media, however, will necessarily have to crawl back into the hole from which it came.

Michael Wolff writes a media column for USA Today. Email him at Michael@Burnrate.com.

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